How a botched DCF probe left a child in harm’s way

05/28/2013 3:21 PM

05/28/2013 3:22 PM

On Nov. 4, a state child abuse investigator was weighing the safety of 5-month-old Bryan Miguel Osceola. The infant, she wrote, was at high risk of neglect because — among other things — his mother had a well-documented drinking problem.

Before she had finished filling out the risk assessment form, investigator Shani Smith seemingly had a change of heart. The form asked whether Catalina Marista Bruno’s drinking problem “seriously impairs her ability to supervise, protect or care” for Bryan.

She checked “no.”

A “yes” answer might have forced Smith to consider removing the baby from his parents, or taking some other action.

Two months later, as Smith was wrapping up her investigation, her view had evolved even more. Suddenly, in Smith’s professional opinion, Bruno had no drinking problem at all.

Smith concluded Bryan was in no danger and took no action to protect him.

Bryan died four months later when his mom left him alone for hours in a closed, hot car, along with her purse and a can of beer.

His May 16 death is the most recent to shock Florida’s chronically troubled Department of Children & Families, which has been rocked by such scandals in some portion of the state every year or two.

On Thursday, the agency’s secretary, David Wilkins, announced that Smith was under investigation by both the agency’s inspector general and the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office for allegedly falsifying a report that said Bruno was not a substance abuser. Wilkins said the agency also would review scores of Smith’s closed investigations to ensure that families that were the subject of the cases were safe.

“When a child dies, the DCF has a duty and obligation to review all of our records, all of our systems, all of our processes and understand what services and actions were taken associated with that child,” Wilkins said at a news conference Thursday.

“We are extremely concerned about this employee’s actions, and all of the investigations she has performed,” he added.

Also on Thursday, a member of a foster care oversight board in Miami requested that top DCF administrators be invited to attend the group’s next meeting to answer questions about the case.

Wrote foster parent Maritza Moreno, a member of the Community Based Care Alliance, a citizen’s group that keeps tabs on child welfare in Miami: “I have received phone calls from foster parents who are confused as to why this child was not removed and placed in out-of-home care. Alternatively, why was the mother not provided services to ensure the safety of this child.”

“We are after all, an oversight board,” Moreno wrote, adding, “there must be transparency.”

Bruno was arrested Nov. 4, 2012, after police found her slumped over in her car after having clipped a building or two while driving recklessly, records show. Bryan, only 5 months old at the time, was unsecured in the front of the car, his head wedged between the seats.

Her DUI arrest triggered a DCF investigation, its second since Bryan’s May 31, 2012, birth. Two months later, when Smith concluded her investigation, she wrote that Bryan was “safe.”

Her reasoning: Bruno was “awaiting services through criminal court” as her drunken driving and child neglect charges were resolved. Bruno’s substance abuse evaluation “was negative for substances and there was no recommendation for services.”

She added: Relatives and neighbors “state Mom doesn’t usually drink like this. Mom stated she didn’t realize how inebriated she was and fell asleep while driving home.” Smith added she “advised Mom of the dangers of drinking and driving and urged her to complete criminal court services. Mom agreed to comply.”

But Smith’s evaluation of the infant’s risk was badly flawed:

Bruno remained on bond for six months while awaiting trial on the DUI and neglect charges and never received any services — such as alcohol treatment or parenting classes — while on pre-trial release. So neither DCF nor the criminal court system had done anything to mitigate the risk to Bryan and his two siblings, aged 4 and 10.

DCF administrators now believe that no substance abuse evaluation was performed at all and that Smith phonied up the results of one. So the agency had no real idea how severe Bruno’s drinking problem was, or how it may have endangered her children. Smith denies falsifying the report.

Though relatives and neighbors downplayed Bruno’s drinking problem, public records easily available to the agency clearly showed Bruno had a well-documented history of substance abuse. Bruno had been arrested three times on charges related to alcohol or cocaine possession. She also had been charged by police twice for violating municipal ordinances banning open containers of alcohol.

Despite Bruno’s arrest for drunk driving and child neglect in the November case, Smith closed her investigation with a finding that there were “no indicators” Bruno had a drinking problem that endangered her children. Based on Smith’s conclusions, DCF took no action to help Bruno or protect her children.

On May 16, Bruno returned to her Kendall-area home from an undisclosed location and left her purse, a beer can and Bryan in her car. Hours later, Bryan’s father, Amos Osceloa, asked where the little boy was. He was found strapped in his car seat with a body temperature of 109 degrees.

Miami Herald writer Dorothy Atkins contributed to this report.

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